Book Review by A. Clare Brandabur
A Little Matter of Genocide:
Holocaust and Denial in the Americas-1492 to the Present.
by Ward Churchill (San Francisco: City Lights Books. 1997.)
A few years ago I was given a copy of Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building (1980), a volume of American history in which the author documents the successive genocides committed by white settlers against darker-skinned peoples from the extermination of the Pequods through the Viet Nam War. This frank approach was a refreshing change from the dominant-discourse view of these events as a series of heroic ‘frontiers’. Only one problem: it seemed that Drinnon’s courageous version of American history required, as a final chapter, an account of the genocide against the Palestinians now being carried out by those US surrogates the Israelis. When I called the editor who had entrusted the book to me and made this caveat, he said quietly, ‘I know. I called Drinnon and told him the same thing. He agreed with me. But he said if he had written that chapter, the book would not have been published.’
Although Ward Churchill has not written fully on the genocide against the Palestinians, he does place it within the global context of the present book, A Little Matter of Genocide, a book which leapt out at me from a display of books by and about native Americans in City Lights Book Store. The author is an enrolled Keetoowah Cherokee and Professor of American Indian Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and has been a leader of the Colorado Chapter of the American Indian Movement since 1972. The title of the book is taken from a statement by Russell Means, founder of the American Indian Movement, who spoke of ‘a little matter of genocide right here at home,’ by which he meant the ongoing genocide against the American Indians which is still in progress.
In this week in which the UN marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Polish-American jurist Raphael Lemkin, it is fitting to notice that Churchill’s book is dedicated to this remarkable man. Lemkin’s comprehensive definition of genocide, ultimately incorporated into the UN Resolution on Genocide, had been rejected (in part at least, Churchill believes, because he was Jewish and spoke with a foreign accent) by Democrat and Republican members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in their deliberations in 1948. The purpose of the book is to achieve an understanding of genocide which will enable the global community to call past genocides by their right name, to stop genocides now in progress, and to prevent future genocides. Starting from the facts of the genocide against his own people, Churchill relates the history of genocide and the struggle to articulate a definition of the term sufficiently accurate and comprehensive to prevent the watering down of the concept, and to cut through the misleading rhetoric which now obfuscates debate thereby permitting this and other genocides to continue. Churchill gives shocking statistics:
During the four centuries spanning the time between 1492, when Christopher Columbus first set foot on the ‘New World’ of a Caribbean beach and 1892, when the US Census Bureau concluded that there were fewer than a quarter-million indigenous people surviving within the country’s boundaries, a hemispheric population estimated to have been as great as 125 million was reduced by something over 90 percent. The people had died in their millions of being hacked apart with axes and swords, buried alive and trampled under horses, hunted as game and fed to dogs, shot, beaten, stabbed, scalped for bounty, hanged on meathooks and thrown over the sides of ships at sea, worked to death as slave laborers, intentionally starved and frozen to death during a multitude of forced marches and internments, and, in an unknown number of instances, deliberately infected with epidemic diseases. (p. 1)
Later in the book he gives a staggering estimate of the total who were ‘ethnically cleansed’: ‘All told, it is probable that more than one hundred million native people were ‘eliminated’ in the course of Europe’s ongoing ‘civilization’ of the western hemisphere.’(p. 86) (Emphasis added)
Yet this ghastly history is denied, suppressed, minimized or even celebrated by deniers of what Ward Churchill calls the American holocaust. The director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney, in collaboration with the US Senate, during preparations for the 1992 celebration of Columbus Day, refused to fund any film production which proposed to use the word ‘genocide’ to explain the liquidation of Native Americans. Charles Krauthamer used one of his Time Magazine columns (May 27, 1991) to claim that the extermination of Native Americans was entirely justified because it wiped out ‘barbarisms’ like the Inca community (notwithstanding that pre-Columbian Inca art has been compared favorably with the achievements of classical Greece, e.g. by Malcolm Billings in a recent BBC Heritage episode on central America). Arthur Schlesinger, Churchill continues, is prarphrased by David Stannard as asserting that without the European conquests and slaughter, at least some New World societies would today be sufficiently unpleasant places to live so as to make acceptable the centuries of genocide that were carried out against the native peoples of the entire Western Hemisphere. (p. 4)
From denials of the American holocaust, Churchill moves to a consideration of the Nazi program against Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Slovenes and Serbs: ‘Between 1938 and 1945, Poland, the first Slavic nation to fall to the Germans, suffered 6,028,000 nonmilitary deaths, about 22 percent population reduction. (Three million of the Polish dead were Jews, and another 200,000 or so Gypsies, so the Slavic reduction would come to about 14 percent.) Virtually every member of the Polish intelligentsia was murdered.’ (pp. 47-49) More horrendous statistics follow: the USSR suffered terrible losses: by May 10, 1943, the Germans had taken 5,405,616 Soviet military prisoners; of these, around 3.5 million were starved, frozen, shot, gassed, hanged, killed by unchecked epidemics, or simply worked to death. The pre-war population of the Ukraine, Churchill says, was reduced, by the time the Germans were finally driven out in 1944, by about 14.5 million, of these at least 7 million were dead. The Soviet Union lost a minimum of 11 million civilians to Nazi extermination measures, perhaps as many as 15 million, plus another 3.5 million exterminated as prisoners of war, in addition to perhaps a million troops executed by Wehrmacht and Waffen SS units rather than being taken prisoner. (p. 48)
In spite of the overwhelming documentation for mass extermination in the American holocaust and the obvious inclusion of Slavs, Gypsies, Ukrainians and others besides Jews in the German extermination program, there are still those who deny that the term ‘genocide’ applies to Native Americans, and they are the same in some instances, Churchill observes, as those who deny that the term ‘genocide’ can be applied to any group other than the European Jews. At the center of this verbals storm is Zionism. Churchill says:
But preposterous as some of the argumentation has become, all of it is outstripped by a substantial component of zionism which contends not only that the American holocaust never happened, but that no ‘true’ genocide has ever occurred, other than the Holocaust suffered by the Jews at the hands of the nazis during the first half of the 1940s.’ (p. 7) (Emphasis added)
Of course this discourse has been joined since Churchill’s book by such impressive voices as that of Ronald Finkelstein who castigates those who exploit Jewish death and suffering for personal gain. Here, in what is perhaps the most subtle part of A Little Matter of Genocide, the author provides a closely reasoned discussion in which he shows that there is a close relationship between those who deny the historicity of genocide against the Jews under Hitler’s Germany (a fact of history which Churchill, like Edward Said, regards as established) and those who claim that the German murder of Jews was and remains the only holocaust to which the term applies: those two positions are two sides to the same coin in Churchill’s view. Both positions falsify the whole subject and render objective discussion impossible.
Reviewing the public statements of ‘deniers’ and ‘exclusivists,’ Churchill asks what motive lies behind these patently false positions. The exclusivists, he says, have an agenda of establishing a ‘truth’ which serves to compel permanent maintenance of the privileged political status of Israel, ‘the Jewish state established on Arab land in 1947 as an act of international atonement for the Holocaust . . . and to construct a conceptual screen behind which to hide the realities of Israel’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinian population whose rights and property were usurped in its very creation.’ (p. 74)(Enphasis added)
But why, Churchill asks, do intellectuals and public figures in the rest of the world buy into such a ‘thoroughly dishonest enterprise?’ He analyzes the confluence of interests which he believes explains at least some of this collusion: by seeming to accept ‘exclusivism’, i.e. by seeming to believe that only the Jewish people have ever been the victims of genocide, these other interests gain automatic exemption from coming to terms with various skeletons in their own closets.
This dominant discourse dictates, for example, that Turkey and Israel have an unholy alliance: if Turkey piously agrees that only the Jewish people have suffered true genocide, in return Israel will look the other way from what precisely happened to the Armenians in 1915, and from what is happening to the Kurds today. The US can entertain itself with annual Hollywood blockbusters dramatizing the Diary of Anne Frank, Shoah, Shtetl, Yentl, etc., while carrying on with the nuclear pollution of Native American lands and the impoverishment and deracination of the Indian peoples, meanwhile avoiding the genocidal aspects of its Korean and Viet Nam adventures. Germany can piously atone for its Hitlerian past, paying reparations to Jewish Holocaust survivors while continuing its active persecution and ghettoization of its Gypsy population without the unpleasant admission that the Gypsies too are Holocaust survivors.
Churchill also throws light on the Revolution of British colonies against England in 1776 and on the Cold War as he pursues the subject of genocide. He points out that the colonists opposed England in the years leading up the the American Revolution, not just over the issue of taxation without representation, as we have been taught, but also over the seizure of more and more Native American land. While the Mother Country, engaged in conflicts in Euroope, was trying to cut its losses and sign peace treaties with local Indian tribes putting an end to continued territorial expansion, the settlers wished to continue to expand into ‘free land’ just like the Jewish/American settlers greedy for ‘free land’ in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank and Gaza today. Blackmailed by its Zionist lobbies (of both Fundamentalist Christians and Jews) and unwilling to submit to a world-wide structure designed to settle international conflicts in non-vilent ways, the US resorts to military muscle to impose its own agenda for Israeli colonial expansion. Thus the United States seeks to impose a ‘world order’ through the same kind of unassailable military force that Hitler desired earlier for Germany. Contrary to what now passes for ‘responsible’ analysis in US scholarship, Churchill concludes that the Cold War was the outcome of this bellicosity, as Noam Chomsky has argued. (pp. 370-77)
In the final chapter, Churchill offers an amended Genocide Convention which refines and elaborates that pioneered by Raphael Lemkin who had left Poland in 1939 (his family was to perish in the Holocaust), and was working out of Yale and Duke Universities in the US. Lemkin developed a complex description of genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government Proposals for Redress (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: 1944) Unlike many of the narrower definitions which restrict the idea of genocide to the physical annihilation of an entire group, Lemkin’s concept of genocide included any ‘coordinated and planned annihilation of a national, religious, or racial group by a variety of actions aimed at undermining the foundations essential to the survival of the group as a group.’ This idea of genocide included attacks on political and social institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of the group. Even non-lethal acts that undermined the liberty, dignity and personal security of members of a group constituted genocide, if they contributed to weakening the viability of the group, Churchill explains. (pp. 407-8) To readers familiar with the actualities of Israeli occupation in Palestine and other post-colonial conflicts worldwide, this definition will resonate with significance.
Churchill presents this definition under the title: Proposed Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide, 1997, in the format used for legal instruments in the United Nations, in the hope that it may serve as the basis for serious discussion of this crime which stands like a dark shadow at the heart of human history and without an understanding of which the human race may be unable to achieve a peaceful and stable future.
The book contains an extensive bibliography; the index should be revised in future editions to be more inclusive. For example, only four citations are listed for Chomsky, whereas I have counted at least nine others in the text.